Friday, May 24, 2013

Cruzing around Chicago

Two burnt orange Chevrolet Cruzes await me as I approach Enterprise. The moment I step out of my cab, my agent walks another customer to the better of the two, an upmodel LTZ trim. "Good morning!" leaves my lips as, "GODDAMmmmornINGGGG!"

So what is a Cruze? It came to market in 2008, replacing the Cobalt, which replaced the Cavalier. I know. Me too. But as the Cobalt was lightyears ahead of the Cavalier, so is true of the Cruze to the Cobalt.

With a 1.4 liter turbocharged four-cylinder, this Cruze LT gets around town quite nicely, and rewards you with 38mpg highway. It holds you snugly in a smartly furnished cabin, with interesting fabric treatment on the dash and an easy, familiar layout that belies its economy car status. It's well put together and delivers a dignified ride when buzzing about the 'burbs. I've heard complaints about how easy the steering is, and this is true. But I find the local driving experience in the Cruze practically delightful.

Merging onto I-90 with Dev1 on board, the shine tarnished a bit. That gutsy little four-banger, the better of Cruze's two engine options, couldn't be inspired to get out of its own way when passing. And where did that quiet, dignified ride go? Under hard acceleration, engine shriek and road noise flooded the once serene cabin. Strangely, the whole experience was much more serene on my solo missions. The engine still howled a bit when pressed, but cabin sound and vibration was muted and power was more accessible. Could 150 extra pounds really have that profound an effect on performance?

Dev1 and Dev2 have since temporarily abandoned me. So I don't have meaningful feedback about passenger comfort or the performance penalty paid with 500+ lbs of humans on board. I can say that the back seat is on the tight side, and attempting to pass anything but a Prius on the highway, when laden with post-pubescent passengers, could have less than fruitful results

I now dream of punching robots in the mouth.

This low-level LT model lacked the MyLink touchscreen infotainment system I enjoyed in the Equinox and instead had an non-interactive ice blue LED display. Pairing my iPhone required entering a code, and the system didn't allow for voice dialing of my contacts. Worse, when using phone navigation, every instruction spoken by the nav was punctuated by the car's voice saying, "CALL ENDED": "Turn left onto Higgins Rd. CALL ENDED. In 400 feet, turn right onto 8th St. CALL ENDED. In half a mile, your destination is on the left CALL ENDED." Same story for every notification that hit my phone while paired.I now dream of punching robots in the mouth.

The new-ish Ford Focus is the Cruze's direct competition. Having recently rented a Focus, I agree with every review I've read hailing the Focus as the performer between these two rivals, especially since Cruze has two sleepy powerplants (but a diesel on the way!) whereas Focus is available with a 247 horsepower option. But for me, when you're driving a focus, you know you're at the low end of that brand's food chain. Designers altogether forgot to design the face of the Focus, and the interior has all the plushness of a recycling bin. Cruze, on the other hand, feels much like the General's larger, more expensive offerings, just smaller. The cockpit coddles. Controls feel silky and expensive. And Cruze looks sharp, with a strong Chevy family grille and arcing roofline.

If you've seen my car search blog, you know that I almost leased the Cruze's sister-ship, the Buick Verano. Chevrolet is on a roll here, creating affordable cars that feel much more expensive than they are. The Cruze is absolutely a member of that tradition. Further down the line, in terms of amenities, even the tiny Chevy Spark left an impression on me.

My quibbles with the Cruze are few. As long as you don't have boyracer intentions, Cruze makes for a truly pleasant daily driver. The new diesel engine will add a lot more low-end torque and significantly more miles to a tank of gas, making it the practical, better-designed choice, if you're shopping against Focus. CALL ENDED.